Several years ago, an Israel activist in my community referred to JStreet supporters as kapos. He also posted articles using the analogy on his Facebook page, and forwarded them to his various email lists. He was already known in town for his insulting, flamboyant language, his Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity-style contempt for left wingers or anyone who disagreed with him on Israel. He had a following— not large, but not insignificant. He wasn’t a unique type in our increasingly fractious American Jewish community, nor was he particularly influential or harmful.
But there was something about the kapo analogy that nauseated me. It was a visceral reaction, beyond rationality, as I suppose he intended. It struck me not just as a crime against memory, against survivors, but against language itself, the ways we use it to map the truth. How to unpack this demonic analogy? American Jews who publicly oppose settlements and support a two state solution are like the wretched, bullying Jews who, using clubs and fists, herded other Jews into gas chambers. Honestly, it hurt my fingers just now even to type that sentence. I took myself off his lists and Facebook page, and moved on.
But a few years later, he did it again – brandished the JStreet/kapo sword, this time in response to a panel I’d agreed to be on with several rabbinic colleagues responding to a JStreet-sponsored speech by Peter Beinart. JStreeters were kapos, he wrote, and here we were – rabbis – consorting with kapos, conspiring in the destruction of the State of Israel. In fact our purpose was to challenge Beinart, but for this activist we were at best collaborators, at worst kapos ourselves.
We’d had enough, enough bullying, enough crimes against language and memory, enough talk radio inspired verbal poison injected into our lovely Jewish community. Several of my colleagues and I decided to take on the guy. We spoke to his donors. We wrote open letters, pointing out his obnoxious insults, his shaky relationship with the truth. We urged the Jewish leaders in town to marginalize him. Our goal was to build a Jewish community that tolerated disagreement – even profound disagreement – but that also refused to tolerate vicious, demonizing language.
And we succeeded. Either his donors pushed him or, less likely, he had a genuine change of heart, but in either case he apologized, unreservedly. I wrote him a note that day accepting his apology, because why not? We’d won. In my mind, the good guys triumphed and the bad guys lost. We’d rescued our community from years of nasty, destructive name-calling. But then, just a few years later, Donald Trump appointed a man to be Ambassador to Israel who referred to JStreeters as “worse than kapos.” So who won, and who lost?
Somehow in all of my post-Trump malaise, the sense that so many of my essential values have collapsed in a heap in front of me, the Friedman appointment hit me hardest. Now it’s not just a marginally effective local activist spouting off on his Facebook page. It’s our country’s representative to Israel, one of the most important and respected roles in Jewish life. And suddenly it’s not just kapos. It’s “worse than kapos.” When I heard that Trump had appointed David Friedman, I decided it was time to transcend my intellectual revulsion, open my nose to the stench, and really inhale the essence of that rotten JStreet/kapo analogy. What was he – and what were others - trying to say? I suppose it’s something like this: JStreeters are urging a particular policy – giving up territory, trusting the Palestinians — that represents a risk to Israelis. The actions of JStreet might bring about the death of fellow Jews.
One wishes the JStreet/kapo crowd would have framed the issue in less inflammatory ways, but nevertheless, it’s worth contemplating the argument, or at least staring at those sentences for a few minutes, because it’s a serious question. Is it morally acceptable to advocate for a policy, even a policy that strikes us an ethical imperative, that puts others at risk? But if that’s the question, David Friedman also has to answer it. After all, building new settlements – which he has publicly endorsed, which he has supported financially - also carries risks, risks for further terrorism, of exacerbating the conflict, of prolonging an already endless war. And resisting the two-state solution is similarly risky, similarly deadly. If, thanks to the new Trump-era, thanks to Friedman, thanks to the interesting times we live in, the kapo analogy is now part of our discourse, Friedman’s also a kapo. He’s also urging our government to support a policy which could bring harm to his fellow Jews. Maybe we’re all kapos now.
The relevant fact here is that sometime in the last 20 years or so, American Jewish neutrality in Israel politics collapsed. With very few exceptions, we’ve all picked sides, Friedman and I, the rabbis in my community, the activists all across the political spectrum. Hopefully, at some point soon, we can refer to this development as taking responsibility for our ideas – understanding with depth and commitment the consequences of our ideological positions. That would be the healthy, mature way to recognize our current predicament. Until then, we’re all kapos.